The success of Grafenegg, a relative newcomer to the Austrian summer festival scene, lies in the timing: held in the last week of August and first week of September, the festival has become an additional tour date for international orchestras engaged at the BBC Proms and Salzburg and Lucerne festivals, as well as a stop for German orchestras looking to take their first concert of the new season on the road. The latter was true for this event, the only non-German date on a mini-tour to mark Christian Thielemann’s much-anticipated assumption of the reins at the Staatskapelle Dresden, and as such a cause for no small amount of euphoria in Austria, where Thielemann’s appearances are greeted just as enthusiastically if not even more so than in Germany.

Grafenegg Festival © Klaus Fritsch
Grafenegg Festival
© Klaus Fritsch

Thielemann is a conductor who doggedly sticks to the orchestral repertoire he knows, namely the 19th-century bedrock of Austro-Germanic tradition. But whereas Renée Fleming had performed Wolf songs in Dresden, at Grafenegg we heard Wagner’s orchestral version of the Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan und Isolde, an arrangement that invariably feels much poorer for the absence of Isolde and in which respect this performance was no different. Coming from a fastidious, micro-managed prelude as searing as a damp barbecue, the transfiguration saw Isolde’s line becoming ever more washed-out as it passed bumpily around the orchestra. One revealing moment was the first violins’ insistence on ‘Seht ihr’s nicht’ (one of the many mysteries surrounding Isolde is what she sees with such clarity that we don’t), but otherwise Thielemann angled for tender and got bland.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was, by contrast, about as commanding a performance of the work as one is likely to hear nowadays. Possessed of synthesizing power from the outset, the first movement’s three expositional themes unfolded with great lucidity and showed Bruckner as a composer of long but efficient paragraphs (indeed, measuring the movement’s proportions as he did, Thielemann showed precisely how their length is ideal). If form in Bruckner was ever a matter of material emerging from nothing and knitting together organically, Thielemann summoned the illusion of it here. The moment-by-moment care to detail and phrasing for which he is well known was also responded to strongly – the fussiness of the Wagner thankfully gone – and the expressive surface was perhaps all the more convincing for having the backdrop of a thoroughly conceived span, relieving the need to contrive urgency or force import onto any one event. Thielemann’s chief virtue to the Viennese may be the old-fashioned sound he draws from the orchestras he conducts (nearly exclusively German and Austrian grandes dames), but here there was no latching of it on to Brucknerian style and indeed no place for unnecessary grandeur: the enormous dominant pile-up which prefigures the third theme, typically a magnet for bombast, was shown to be a prolongation which, however unconventionally, does resolve – so much for Bruckner’s non sequiturs – and here it achieved a seamless transition; while the weight of the very end was thrown not onto Wagner’s Rhine bursting its banks in E major but onto a wrenching recapitulation.

The Seventh does not continue to fuse and synthesize in any particular formal way, though one senses at times with certain conductors – those who view it perhaps in the light of the Eighth’s immense cohesion – the conviction that it maybe should. With Thielemann came continuity through character, and the unusual recapitulation of the first movement led to a second movement most notable for its human dimension, with no grand tribute to Wagner – even if the Staatskapelle’s Wagner tubas did sound magnificent – but something conceived on a more intimate and vulnerable scale. Of course the movement does climax, with a cymbal clash preserved in this performance (the Staatskapelle claimed to be using the Haas edition, which omits it, but in this and other respects it sounded much closer to the later Nowak edition), and here not remotely triumphal but a shattering effect which spoke of energies drained (quite by what, a tantalisingly ambiguous question). Grafenegg’s idiosyncratic outdoor acoustic was most unforgiving in the Scherzo, which had the muffle of a mono recording. But despite the dampened sound it seemed punchy to just the right degree, with none of the huffing and puffing a steadier tempo can impose on the movement’s gait.

Even if not quite fit to crown what Thielemann had hitherto crafted, this fourth movement is not an easy finale and was by any standard fine. The basses, an essential anchor, were reduced to unpitched muddiness by the acoustic, but the temptation to compensate with heaviness elsewhere was deftly avoided, and most importantly in the emphatic perfect cadences littered throughout the movement. The two sequences of suspensions in the centre of the movement, pounded out by a massive brass section as if Bach by way of Bismarck, were, as in all the big moments of drama, neither gratuitous nor particularly Teutonic, and for once seemed to stem logically from the string’s smoother chorale theme. Only at the very end did Thielemann indulge us in the stately resplendence one might have expected more of; otherwise this was Bruckner with more than an unlikely tinge of modernism, however unintended, and as I have not heard this music since Pierre Boulez’s recording of the Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic.